Murder by the Book by Claire Harman

Murder by the Book

Claire Harman

Murder By the Book combines a thrilling true-crime story with an illuminating account of the rise of the novel form and the battle for its early soul among the most famous writers of the time.

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"Enthralling . . . A page-turner that can hold its own with any one of the many murder-minded podcasts out there."
—Jezebel

From the acclaimed biographer--the fascinating, little-known story of a Victorian-era murder that rocked literary London, leading Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, and Queen Victoria herself to wonder: Can a novel kill?


In May 1840, Lord William Russell, well known in London's highest social circles, was found with his throat cut. The brutal murder had the whole city talking. The police suspected Russell's valet, Courvoisier, but the evidence was weak. The missing clue, it turned out, lay in the unlikeliest place: what Courvoisier had been reading. In the years just before the murder, new printing methods had made books cheap and abundant, the novel form was on the rise, and suddenly everyone was reading. The best-selling titles were the most sensational true-crime stories. Even Dickens and Thackeray, both at the beginning of their careers, fell under the spell of these tales--Dickens publicly admiring them, Thackeray rejecting them. One such phenomenon was William Harrison Ainsworth's Jack Sheppard, the story of an unrepentant criminal who escaped the gallows time and again. When Lord William's murderer finally confessed his guilt, he would cite this novel in his defense. Murder By the Book combines this thrilling true-crime story with an illuminating account of the rise of the novel form and the battle for its early soul among the most famous writers of the time. It is superbly researched, vividly written, and captivating from first to last.


Advance Galley Reviews

I enjoyed this account of the investigation of a murder committed in London during the Victorian era. It always interests me how criminal investigation has evolved and there were enough details in this book to satisfy that interest. I was also fascinated by how the cultural phenomenon of Jack Sheppard influenced attitudes toward crime and subsequent literature.

3.25 stars Thank you to Penguin's First to Read and Alfred A. Knopf for allowing me to read and review this book. Published March 26, 2019. (First publication October 25, 2018) This is the true crime revision of the death of the British aristocrat Lord William Russell. He was killed in his bed, in London in 1840. The book goes on to solve the crime. However, in the interim, the author goes on to illustrate the beginnings of the 'Newgate novels', which was the birth of the fiction crime novel. These novels spoke to and about the working class man but also romanticized crime and violence. It was through this process that Lord Williams killer was ultimately caught, as his killers' inspiration and method were taken from a Newgate novel. I found this to be a very unusual read for a non-fiction book. For a true crime story, from the mid-1800s, to read like a fictional history is unique. The language that the author used was more true to that time period than to today's works and for me took a little time to settle into. Once seated into the book I felt it read very well.

Summary: This is an account of a murder that happened in 1840, that caused massive uproar at the time, and brought into sharp focus the effects of the “Newgate novels” onto society, an argument that still has parallels in today’s world (e.g. the effect of video games). Main Characters: Francois Courvoisier: The valet, and chief suspect of the crime. Lord William Russell: The victim. A minor aristocrat in and of himself, but well-connected in society. Jack Sheppard: He was a real-life thief, who was brought back to life in the eponymous novel by William Ainsworth, published shortly before the murder, and which was a massive seller. Minor Characters: The Metropolitan Police: A force in its infancy, it contained a lot of amateurs and incompetents. The Press: Sensationalist reporting versus the more measured tones, the angles the journalists took gripped the popular imagination. Plot: In early May 1840, Lord William Russell was found dead, his head having been nearly severed from his body. He was an elderly and minor aristocrat, having lived abroad for many years, but now enjoying his cloistered life in Mayfair, London. Initially, the scene looked like a suicide, but closer inspection led the Metropolitan Police to start a murder inquiry, suspecting it was a burglary gone wrong. It was a gory death, with Russell’s head nearly being cleaved from his shoulders, and the body was found in a sea of blood. The author follows several threads in this novel, giving background details where necessary, and fleshing out the main suspect Courvoisier. She has clearly done her research, as the threads are pulled together to give us as complete a picture of the clumsy performance of the police, the antis of the lawyers, and the implied pressure the judiciary and police were under from the royal and aristocratic interest in the case (the newly married Queen Victoria, who herself had just survived an assassination attempt, took a very keen interest, even having her prime minister update her!). This was the age where Dickens was beginning to find his writing muse yet was still relatively unknown, Thackeray was a struggling word-smith a decade away from Vanity Fair, and the most popular author at this time was William Ainsworth of Manchester, who conquered London and the UK with his book Jack Shepard, glorifying the criminal life of its eponymous hero. This genre was known as the “Newgate novels”, which glamorised the criminal underworld, portrayed the authorities as fools, which had its own “lingo”, and promoted a devil-may-care approach to life. These novels caused great concern at the time, especially around destroying the morals (and passiveness??) of the working class. The topic of censorship was thus very much in the air. The popularity of this novel at the time (all but forgotten now) was such that it was in eight out of nine London theatres, and was reprinted several times (and many more times illegally). Courvoisier was eventually found guilty (yes – the butler did it!), but one of his stated reasons [he gave several, and contradicted himself so often that the author cannot confirm which account was the truth] was that Jack Sheppard had inspired him. This ignited London, and the whole city talked of nothing else. The author details what must be one of the first instances of celebrity news, where nearly 40,000 people turned up at Newgate to watch Courvoisier hang. In the throng were Dickens, Thackeray, and numerous others. Both were deeply influenced by this, leading to their campaigns to repeal the death penalty in years to come. What I Liked: - The research is meticulous, and the account is very well-structured. - She does not aim to sensationalise, but gives the facts and allows us to infer. - There is an excellent “Unanswered Questions” at the end, which casts a cold light on the then-investigation, and several holes that appear, and leads not followed up. What I Didn’t Like: - The author focused solely on the potential effect of the novel, and while mentioned the huge turbulence in society at the time (e.g. the Chartist movement), is not given any space as a potential trigger. Society itself was in a whirlpool, but none of those ripples affect these shores. - There was some extraneous information, which while interesting from a historical perspective, had no real bearing on the crime (e.g. Dicken’s Raven ending up in Poe’s museum). This tended to drag the story. - The author kept it very factual, so there was none of the usual drama or tension of a crime novel per se. It could have become Ripper-esque, in the sense of did he act alone, and the unresolved loose ends. Overall: It was a good read, which kept my interest. It is not a genre I would normally take on, but it was well-structured, excellently researched and historically interesting, but I think one for those more familiar with and disposed towards this type of novel. Acknowledgements: I received a free .mobi from First To Read in return for an objective and honest review.

I was really intrigued by the premise of this book: crime fiction meets reality and the idea that perhaps society's obsession with crime and horror perpetuates the real monsters of humanity. I struggled to get into the book at first as I found it hard to track which characters were important and the book bounced back and forth between background info and the current story. I did really like the way the story developed and I am an glad I stuck with the book. There was a lot of extraneous info in the book but I found that it really helped the setting and understanding the context of the book. Overall I would recommend this book if you enjoy true crime, or historical fiction.

At times, this was a bit overwrought, but it wasn't the writing, it was the period and the "I'm better than you" attitude of the Aristocracy. (Which frankly the rich and current Aristocracy is bad enough, thank you. A murder of your peers is still a murder, you don't get to run around saying how dare they? "They" being those ungrateful servants that were worked to the bone and paid peanuts.) I was fascinated while trying to puzzle out the culprit and still not sold on the motive or the reasonableness of the plan. Yet, the differing opinions of famous people for and against Courvoisier was so insightful into their character. I don't want to give a spoiler, so I will just say that I have since read Thackery's 'Going to See a Man Hanged' and gained a new respect for his skills of observation, sense of the absurd, and the horrible circus-like atmosphere that public executions turn into. Have to admit, I'm still wondering if he did it alone, and if so, what was the straw that broke the camel's back? Not that I think that they hung the wrong man, I don't understand the timing combined with the lack of planning and motivation.

I love true crime and books but I just couldn't get into this book. Things bounced around too much for me to follow. A lot of seemingly random people were brought up. I have no idea who they were or what they had to do with anything. I don't much care who was married to whom, who was having an affair with whole, or who was at a party when his wife was still alive. When it got to the part about books a few chapters in, several authors, books, and characters were mentioned in a short period of time and I had trouble keeping them straight. I don't give up on books very often but I just couldn't make myself keep reading.

The book in question is Jack Sheppard, the story of a criminal who was able to escape numerous times before he was finally hanged. His story was dramatized several times and was wildly popular. Other true crime books romanticizing criminals were also in circulation. In 1840 Lord William Russell was murdered in his bed, and when His valet Courvoisier was convicted of the crime he cited the influence of the book. Public opinion turned sharply against the genre, led by Dickens who had been supportive.

As fan of Dickens and Victorian lit in general, I found this book very intriguing. I love hearing stories that place creative works in the context in which they were developed, and Harman does a great job of providing a background plot and details that help the reader understand the social environment of the times and the politics that were pulling on these writers. I was not familiar with the "Newgate"-type stories and the detrimental reception they had after being impugned in some serious crimes. The mystery laid out here is not exactly a page turner, and Harman's style is more research than story, but she does a good job of sharing the details that are relevant to the link between the crime and the literature. I did have a little trouble keeping track of some of the names, and fewer of the minor references may have helped. Overall, a solid and interesting book that left me with a clearer understanding of Victorian times and challenges.

This was a fascinating read about the intersection of fiction and the reality it is based on. It has reminded me a lot of The Devil In the White City. The detail was quite interesting, it seems extremely well researched and I felt like I learned a lot. I would absolutely recommend it to my friends and family.

I am a big fan of true crime, particularly historical true crime, and was immediately intrigued by the tie-in to the literary figures of the time given their stature and the cultural implications (and resonances with contemporary cultural battles over video games and music). Unfortunately, I found the book underwhelming in both regards - which was a huge disappointment... This may have been a murder that rocked Victorian London, but the presentation was surprisingly cold and clinical for all that. I didn't need sensationalism, but was surprised at how dry the recitation of details felt - and there were PLENTY of details... When the book shifted to focus on the literary angle, I was again a bit taken aback at how flat the story felt. It seemed almost like two books were written and then interspersed, rather than interwoven. I was hoping for a little more impact and a little less "just the facts, ma'am"... That may have been my misinterpretation of the blurb - although based on other reviews, I'm thinking it's more an issue of overselling the drama in the description to intrigue readers. There's nothing at all wrong with a straightforward factual retelling; they can be illuminating and informative and entertaining - when you know that's what you're walking into. Frankly, I think billing this one as "a thrilling true-crime story with an illuminating account of the rise of the novel form and the battle for its early soul among the most famous writers of the time" made this sound like a very different book than what it actually was. As a result I went in expecting big drama and it fell flat for me. The writing is solid and the research clearly thorough; had it not been so oversold, my read (and expectations) would likely have taken me in a very different direction...

There was a lot here to enjoy, but the true crime portion of this book was definitely the primary story with the discussion about the rise of the novel on the back foot. Luckily the murder and its investigation was quite interesting, but no more so than any other true crime narrative. Where I hoped that this book would do something different was in the area of the influence that the crime had upon some of the most famous novelists of the day, including Dickens and Thackeray and there is some discussion around this topic, but not as much as I would have liked. Similarly there is some evaluation on the media frenzy and public outcry around a particular book and whether this book had an impact upon the murderer, but again, it took a back seat to the crime itself. All in all, this is an interesting book, but for me, it was a fairly standard true crime narrative. I received a free copy of this book from First to Read in exchange for a fair and honest review.

I’m a pretty big true crime fan. If you leave me to my own devices, I’m probably going to end up watching Forensic Files. So, you can imagine that I was very excited to see a Victorian true crime novel with a literary angle. While parts of it lived up to the title, other parts were a bit more underwhelming. The Victorian ton was shocked by the gruesome murder of elderly Lord William Russel, found with his throat slit in his own bed in a ritzy part of London. While the mattress was soaked with blood, the rest of the room was spotless, though there were obvious signs of a robbery attempt in the rest of the house. With great pressure on the police – from even the Queen – to solve the crime in order to reassure the nervous public, it’s no surprise when the victim’s foreign valet is charged with the crime. What unfurls is an interesting exploration of literary London. It’s not that Dickens, Thackeray and the like were involved with the victim or murderer, but how the crime was formed by and then influenced the media of the time. As the investigation into Lord William Russell’s death proceeded, several of the leading writers of the day were alarmed to find themselves suddenly under fire for having contributed to what The Monthly Review characterized as a “general want of settledness” by writing fictions that glamorized vice and made heroes of criminals. Given the chance to mould the taste of a mass audience, many of them were now accused of pandering to the lowest, with books full of violent excitements and vulgarity that could all too easily lead susceptible readers astray. Things were already tense before the murder – the class divide was causing riots, enough to cause several sentences of drawing and quartering. The popular literature of the day turned house-breakers, thieves, and even murderers into Robin Hood-type heroes, none more so than the 18th century criminal Jack Sheppard, first romanticized by William Harrison Ainsworth and then, due to the lack of copyright laws, adapted into numerous plays that captivated not only London but the whole nation. While the masses – and the nobility – crammed into theaters to watch excellently staged (or more sensationalist) versions of the book, many simultaneously strenuously complained about the moral effect of turning criminals into celebrities. It’s strange how the more things change, the more they stay the same – we see the same thing today in the moral panic over violent video games and 4chan. From nearly his first confession, the charged valet cites Jack Sheppard as his reason for committing the murder, and despite his often contradictory statements, the public seemed to lap it up. The extent to which he enjoyed his celebrity – and the amount of newspaper inches given to promoting it – was disquieting and familiar. Weighing in on the progress of the investigation and the kerfuffle surrounding it, we have Thackeray and Dickens (with his Oliver Twist). While the investigation, trial, and execution was the main subject of the book, I found myself more interested in the discussion of how these so-called Newgate novels came to be, and how they influenced the population in general. While this seems to be the main focus of the book, it also eventually meanders off onto several side paths, from a discussion of the death penalty to Dicken’s pet crow. While I found these forays interesting, some of them (like the pet crow who inspired Poe) felt shoehorned in to the book, and that was my biggest criticism. During his last days in Newgate, when the prisoner issued so many different accounts of his actions, The Times gave up on trying to make sense of them: “it seems pretty clear that no credit can be given to any statement which has hitherto been made by this wretched culprit, except as regards the fact of the murder itself; but it would be idle to speculate on the motives of a mind so manifestly perverted.” But, on the contrary, a little further speculation on his motives changes the look of this crime rather dramatically. My second criticism is that we end the book with many questions about the murder and the supposed murderer unanswered, but I find it hard to fault Ms. Harman. It’s always unsettling to see how much prejudice played into crime investigations (and how little forensic science existed – not even finger prints were understood). While the Swiss valet was undoubtedly a thief, there remains some doubt about whether he acted alone (if at all). Ms. Harman does address how the crime might have been committed (something that didn’t seem to interest the contemporary police), and, honestly with the length of time that’s passed and the lack of evidence, it seems unlikely that anyone could be expected to solve it today. Overall, I enjoyed the book, but found it a bit meandering. If you’re a fan of Victorian true crime or interested in the early inspirations of Dickens and Thackery, I’d definitely recommend this book. I received this book for free from First to Read in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

I had never heard of this murder victim or even realized that books like Oliver Twist were part of a 'dangerous' genre of Newgate novels. They caused a moral panic amongst the Victorians for glamorizing criminals and their lives. This proved both an interesting historic portrait of a murder but also a reminder that some things never truly change - mass media books become video games or movies but the premise and fear remains the same. A little dry and long winded in some points but interesting throughout

This book is like a long-form, very well researched article that the author couldn't quite decide what tone to take in writing. It at times read like a prose novel, only to suddenly read like dry court documents. I can't fault Harman for lack of research. She practically created a time machine that transports the reader to the time of the murder through language and meticulous settings. You get information on the murder, the socio-political climate, the cultural and literary scene, individuals directly and indirectly related to the event, events as they happened before/during/after, and a plethora of other well presented and interesting facts. The only problem is that they read like a class presentation that's really well done but not well presented. It gets a bit repetitious and meandering so the crime (and even the book) get lost in a deluge of facts. Overall, it's not a bad book and it does present some very interesting and memorable facts but it fails to do so in a manner that managed to keep my attention.

I struggled through this book even though I love true crime. It often felt like I was reading a book published in 1840, not 2019 and I struggled to follow it. There were several times I fell asleep even with my iPad open to the book. A short, but by no means a quick read. Not the worst book I have ever read but not my favorite.

This meticulously researched time machine convincingly transports readers to London in the early 1840s, when young, future titans of the novel are forced to contend with the possibility that their fiction is leading to real-world murder. Claire Harman demonstrates a keen insight into Victoriana, and offers an interesting antecedent to modern panics of violent media and adult content before the eyes of the young. Class and status, sex, immigration, prudery, regionalism, and the seedy sport of sensation novels and drama all intertwine in this nuanced work of nonfiction. To this reader, Harman’s pace isn’t quite as gripping as the mystery of the murdered Lord at the center of the crime was to contemporaries, and the span of the text seems relatively short in relation to similar analyses in print. That said, I would recommend this book with little reservation to students of the era, literature, or the “ripped from the headlines” sordid tales of bygone days. My copy was provided by Penguin’s First to Read, which is well formatted digitally, with the exception of some missing illustrations and prints alluded to in the notes.

In 1840, Lord William Russell, a minor aristocrat, "aged and respected", was discovered with his throat slashed, lying on a blood-soaked mattress. These were unsettling, challenging times in London. There was "...the change taking place in the disposition of the common people toward 'all men in power'." "If a person like Lord William was not safe in his bed than who was?" The working class in London was becoming more literate. The latest novels, often sensational works of fiction "...glamorized vice and made heroes of criminals...". New novels were often serialized in magazines. "Felon Literature" made atrocious crime romantic and glamorous. One such novel was "Jack Sheppard" written in 1839 by William Harrison Ainsworth. The real Jack Sheppard was an 18th Century thief, burglar and pickpocket who escaped from prison numerous times before going to the gallows. Ainsworth's novel depicted diminutive Jack as a hero of sorts. Stage versions of Ainsworth's novel were many and varied. The better dramatizations were viewed by the "educated classes" despite "the very scenery of revolting spectacles and deeds". Different versions existed since copyright laws did not protect authors from plagiarists. Many Londoners crowded into theaters again and again to view the exploits of the notorious Jack. On to the death of Lord William Russell. Was this crime in any way connected to the "Jack Sheppard phenomenon"? Who slashed Lord William's carotid artery yet left no blood splatter on the walls or curtains? Why were few valuables stolen? Surprisingly, the sensational crime was closely followed, and updates given to Lord Melbourne to be relayed to a young Queen Victoria! "Murder by the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens's London" by Claire Harman was a fascinating, thoroughly researched tome discussing a "moral panic", the effect of a form of entertainment as a catalyst for heinous crime committed by impressionable juveniles. Thank you First to Read-Penguin Random House and Claire Harman for the opportunity to read and review "Murder by the Book".

 


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